I have a conversation with a security guard at the MoMA and am shown the reality of the American dream.
I often despise art museums in general and modern art in particular not only because they are shrines to rich extravagance but also because the security guards tend to stare at me like they think I’m about to start pissing on something at any moment. I mentioned to some friends that I had never been to the MoMA — Museum of Modern Art — while in Brooklyn, and a corporate pass was immediately flung in my general direction. “It will get you in free, you have to go.”
I muddled about for a while before meandering towards a collection of photographs from a guy who had a little shop in Paris where he made a living selling stock photos. I make a reasonable amont of money selling stock photos online and entered into the room to see if I could glean some pointers from the exhibit.
As I walked into the room I could not help but notice the stare being emitted in my direction by the security guard wearing a slick suit and tie. His skin was half dark, I could not place his facial features. He nervously stared at me as though he though that if he did not keep a good watch over me at any moment I could start pissing all over something. Usually, these suit clad security personnel just glare at me from a polite distance. This guy was staring at the back of my head while standing directly behind me. We were the only people in the room and I soon found it unbearable to look at the photos with someone staring a hole through my cranium.
I spun around and faced the fellow standing on my tail. “You must get awful bored just staring at people staring at pictures all day long,” I snapped.
He smiled big. Surprised, apparently, that someone talked to him. I was surprised that he absorbed my snarky comment with such grace.
“It’s a job, man,” he began, “it wasn’t suppose to be this way.”
I was drawn in.
“I never thought I’d be working in security,” he continued. “My specialty is logistics. When I first came to this country I had a good job with Swiss Airlines. I made good money, it was good work. Then they started laying people off. First, a couple would go, then a couple more, then it was me.”
I asked him where he was from. He replied generally that his home country was in South America. I asked him where specifically.
“You don’t know where it is, man. Guyana.”
“Yeah, you know it?” he exclaimed with a touch of surprise.
“I’m a traveler.”
I could tell right off that he was a touch discontented about something, that he was aching to talk to someone about what he’d been running through his head all day as he paced back and forth across the photography exhibit.
“We can’t get ahead here,” he continued. “I moved here for a better life, opportunity, and all that. Now I don’t have a better life, I work and I spend all that I make. In my home country I work and I can put a little away to save. My mother put me through college by saving a little bit here and there. We didn’t have much money but we were always able to put a little away to save. Here we can’t save anything, we can’t get ahead. My wife works part time and I work full time and together we don’t make $500 per week.”
This has been a story I’ve heard many times over from immigrants trying to make a life in the United States rather than just doing a term of hard labor in order to send remittances home. Many find themselves on a treadmill: working today just to be able to afford working tomorrow. It’s the American dream with the layers of fantasy shaved off. The number of people I’ve meet in my travels who think all they need is to go to the USA and then they’ll have it made is countless. I shrug and say nothing when I hear them talking of what they could have if they could only emigrate. They don’t understand that it often costs $500 per week in the USA to make $500.
“This country had it all,” the security guard continued.
“And they gave it all away,” I interjected and then began talking about the global tread of world economies slowly catching up to each other. But the security guard had things he wanted to say and was not poised to listen. We stood in the photography exhibit and I began to get a little worried that I could get him in trouble for talking to him for so long. Another guest could have easily gotten away with pissing on a picture as we spoke.
“There is deluge of labor in this country,” the security guard continued, unconcerned that he may get in trouble for gabbing to me rather than silently staring at people staring at photos. “I can’t go to my employer and ask for more money because there are 10 more guys who want my job. This recession is good for the wealthy.”
“Yeah, labor is on sale,” I accompanied his grumbling.
“The working people of this country have been victimized,” he added. “It is hard for immigrants in this country. We’re the last ones that are going to be given the jobs.”
He then said that he was thinking about going back to Guyana. I told him that it probably would not be a bad decision. With his education and experience he could more than likely get a better quality job and live better. “Yes, you would at least be able to be with your family,” I somewhat encouraged him.
“I’m waiting for my wife to make a decision.”
The security guard hit a dead end on the road for the American dream. It is my impression that he was from at least a middle class family in Guyana, he received an decent education, and came to the USA in pursuit of something more to do with it. He found himself working security — a job he obviously felt was far below his capabilities. The United States is a country where doctors, lawyers, and university professors immigrate to become dishwashers, landscapers, and gas station clerks. This is the reality of the American dream — past and present.
The American dream is rarely for the immigrants themselves but for the subsequent generations that they leave with a different set of possibilities. The security guard has a son who was born in the United States, and this is what keeps him standing around in the MoMA looking at people looking at pictures.
“If it wasn’t for my son I’d be back in Guyana.”